Civilians in the Central African Republic caught a break this week. The government and armed groups signed a peace accord on June 19 that includes a ceasefire and political reform measures, which could put an end to a conflict that has claimed thousands of lives and caused immense suffering.

UPC fighters outside a kindergarten in Ngadja, Ouaka province. The fighters have used the building as a base since October 2014. 

© 2017 Edouard Dropsy for Human Rights Watch
But will the victims of atrocities and their families see justice for the crimes they’ve endured? After all, the Central African Republic has historically allowed perpetrators of serious crimes to escape justice, which has fueled further violence.

A 2008 amnesty for those implicated in past crimes together with persistent economic and social problems helped fuel the Seleka movement that sparked the current conflict. This week’s accord does acknowledge current efforts at criminal investigations and prosecutions of grave crimes. It also includes a truth and reconciliation commission with a 12-month mandate that could lead to “traditional methods of forgiveness” and “leaders reassuming posts.” Truth-telling can play an important role after a conflict, but it does not replace the need for prosecutions of serious crimes in fair and credible trials. Victims should not be deprived of their assailant being brought to court, nor should perpetrators be able to escape the reach of the law.

Some armed groups responsible for atrocities have already pushed for amnesties. So the government and United Nations mission in the country should continue to insist, as President Faustin-Archange Touadéra said in November 2016, that “[r]econciliation cannot be achieved at the cost of impunity.”

Two courts provide the opportunity to bring victims justice, and will run parallel to any truth and reconciliation process. One is the Special Criminal Court, a new court embedded in the national justice system that is staffed by national and international judges and prosecutors, to investigate and prosecute the most serious crimes committed since 2003. The other is the International Criminal Court, which has a mandate to cover war crimes and crimes against humanity in the country. Both offer a possibility to break the cycle of impunity and violence that has plagued the Central African Republic.

The peace accord provides real hope for the people of the Central African Republic that the fighting will end. But for this deal to succeed in bringing lasting peace where others have failed, criminal accountability for the many grave international crimes that civilians endured is crucial.